John Clay

Frustrated Kentucky football fans: Mitch Barnhart hears and needs you

There’s an impression out there that when it comes to Kentucky football, Mitch Barnhart doesn’t quite get it. That’s mistaken. He gets it. He knows that despite a 7-5 record and a second straight bowl berth, a large portion of the fan base is not happy right now. He knows attendance is down and frustration is up.

The UK athletic director proved Sunday night he gets all that. In a press conference to promote the team’s appearance in the Dec. 29 Music City Bowl against Northwestern in Nashville, Barnhart didn’t try to sell a false narrative of blue skies and bright smiles. He didn’t dismiss what happened in the regular season-ending, 44-17 loss to archrival Louisville.

Instead, he said this: “What we saw last Saturday is not who we are; never has been or will be. I can assure you their focus will be on re-establishing the way they’ve played on the field and the way they’ve represented this program on and off the field.”

And, he said this: “Our young people need to know that they’ve got the support of the Big Blue Nation and that they will uplift this program a little bit as at times our fans have looked to our players to uplift them.”

You can debate Barnhart’s decision-making when it comes to the program, but he’s been around too long not to know his audience. He knows the ticket-sales total for UK-U of L was lowest for the game in Lexington since the series got a re-boot in 1994. He confirmed Sunday that he had not only received emails about the way the team acted on the field in the Louisville loss — specifically the first-quarter scuffle between UK linebacker Jordan Jones and U of L quarterback Lamar Jackson (and others), plus the numerous personal foul penalties that followed — but also that he shared those emails with the team.

Yes, said Barnhart, he did talk with Coach Mark Stoops about those events on Nov. 25, and he was satisfied that Stoops addressed those matters with the team. Barnhart then, correctly, pointed to three players — wide receiver Charles Walker, quarterback Stephen Johnson and linebacker Courtney Love — as positive role models who have represented Kentucky football the right way.

As for the season, Barnhart said it wasn’t time for a full evaluation now. There’s one more game to play. After that, he’ll sit down with Stoops to hash out the events of the previous five months: what went right, what went wrong.

“Was the season perfect? No,” Barnhart said. “Was it a learning season? Yes.”

And with all the turbulence going on in college football right now, the AD said he was glad to have the current stability in the program. He complimented Stoops’ leadership and congratulated him on a second straight bowl trip. “In case you haven’t noticed, this conference is hard,” Barnhart said. “Very hard.”

Asked about the stipulation in Stoops’ contract that rewarded the coach with an automatic one-year extension and future raise after the season’s seventh win, Barnhart defended the move on the grounds of reasonable growth.

“At our place, you show growth by continuing to get to postseason play,” he said. “Frankly, in this time of instability in the world of college athletics, I think that shows stability and the things that we want to keep moving forward.

“You can say, ‘That’s not enough. That’s not strong enough.’ Everyone can disagree, fine. But at the end of the day, look at the landscape. What we have isn’t broken. It is continuing to try and grow. And the stability is important.”

Still, right now, given the way the season ended, to use Barnhart’s terminology, this is a program looking for a lift. Whether it can get it with a Music City Bowl win over No. 21-ranked Northwestern, or from a credible showing of Kentucky fans in Nashville on the same day the basketball team plays Louisville, remains to be seen. Both could be heavy lifts.

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